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Frontline and the thickness of skin

The Tuesday night Frontline documentary on PBS did a respectable job of overing last year’s Jim West tragedy in Spokane – casting it, reasonably enough, in a classic tragic form, of a man brought down by flaws from within. It did not seem to constitute, as some at the paper apparently had suspected, a sustained blast at the Spokesman-Review, the newspaper whose reporting eventually led to West’s recall as mayor.

Frontline West programThe paper nonetheless seems to have a hard time dealing with it. In the process, it seems to be considering changing an aspect of its own operations that, ironically, allow it to deal more effectively with reports such as this one.

The case, for those unfamiliar with it, concerned Jim West, a long-time Republican state senator elected mayor of Spokane in 2003. (One of the elements left out in the show is that West was generally deemed to have been a good and effective mayor, up to the point the storm hit.) In May 2005, the Spokesman-Review reported that West had been leading a double life, that he had been visiting gay chat rooms and – the paper said this was its main reason for the reportage – had used his position of mayor to further that social life. Somewhat separately, the paper’s reports also linked him to the sexual abuse of minors from years before, when he was a scout leader.

The stories, and they were ongoing for months, created a firestorm in Spokane, and led to a recall election which ousted the mayor. West died of cancer (for which he was being treated during the scandal months) earlier this year.

We followed the story as it unfolded, and read a substantial portion of the related materials the Spokesman posted on its web site – and it posted there not only the many stories in the case, but also many of the raw materials associated with them, including transcripts, tapes, documents and more. This extensive posting was not unusual behavoir for the Spokesman, by the way. Although much of its news content lies behind a pay wall, the paper prides itself on being unusually open in letting the public in on its editorial process and newsgathering. No other Northwest paper is nearly so open; we know of none elsewhere that entirely match it, and we’re big fans of it.

We’ll not here make a unilateral clearance of the Frontline program, but we will note that this was, after all, one episode of normal American television: It sought in less than an hour to explain a man’s life and a mass of reportage that ran to nearly a couple of hundred articles. It left a lot out; as we watched, we remarked on items not included. But then, had they been, the program could have gone on to several hours.

In the Spokesman’s News is a Conversation blog, Spokesman Editor Steve Smith (who was the key figure driving the coverage) had a number of comments today, pointing out errors of commission as well as omission.

I think their mistakes of commission (fact errors) and mistakes of omission were not malicious, in general, but driven by the demands of their narrative and their medium.

But the overall effect, I think, was to seriously dilute the depth, breadth and detail of our reporting and to place far more importance than facts warranted on West’s gayness as the cause of his fall.

Frontline got its Shakespearean tragedy – no one can dispute that Jim West was a tortured man. But I don’t think they got to the truth of the story. And I don’t think they ever understood Spokane.

Here are a couple of the fact errors spotted in an initial, cursory viewing:

• Frontline said that Robert Galliher’s first mention of abuse by West was in a 2005 interview. Incorrect. As we reported, he wrote about the abuse in a 2004 jailhouse letter to a psychiatrist who provided a copy of the letter to the newspaper. It’s posted online.
• Frontline says Galliher could not explain why he failed to report West sooner. Wrong. As we reported Galliher said he feared for his safety, accused West of orchestrating a jailhouse beating and had tried to avoid pointing a finger at a powerful politician with close ties to police.
• The source who first told Morlin he met West online and had sex with him was barely 18 and just out of high school at the time they first began chatting online and had just turned 19 at the time of their “date.” Frontline said he was 20. That is not an inconsiderable mistake given the nature of our reporting.
• The Motorbrock deception lasted less than three months, not the six months described by Frontline.
• West, not Motobrock, turned the online chats to sex.
• West, not Motobrock, raised the prospect of a job/internship at City Hall.
• West, not Motobrock, asked for the personal meeting in April 2005.

The Frontline story suggested the newspaper dropped its investigation of West’s past history of abuse after initial reports. That is not true.

More broadly, Smith wrote, “I thought the show captured a couple of legitimate sentiments; the sense of betrayal felt by Spokane’s gay community and the rage of ordinary Spokane citizens appalled by the mayor’s behavior, but not concerned about his sexuality. That is where Frontline badly missed the point. The producers claimed they came to town to use West as a beginning point for a discussion of the cultural divide in America, of the difficulty of being gay in a small city. They were so focused on the gay issue they forgot that West’s behavior, considered in either a gay or straight context, was simply repellent to citizens who expected a higher standard from the city’s chief executive. As Frontline producers knew, we often talked about the West story as if he had been seeking sex with 18-year-old high school girls, asking ourselves if we would make different decisions or pursue the story in a different way. Frontline viewers should ask themselves the same question and decide if sexuality was the issue or rep[e]llent conduct.”

That last point – would there still be a story if the sexual orientation had been reversed? – in a useful test, and in our view the stories pass it. We’d agree that Frontline was remiss, as it considered what to include or exclude in its report, not to take that point into account.

But it did have to pick and choose, and if it “got its Shakespearean tragedy,” well, that’s sometimes what reporters and editors do. One online critic today needled Smith, “Wow. Just wow. The immense hypocrisy of your take on the Frontline story and the total absence of self-awareness is staggering to read. Have you ever shown the subject of a story the copy in advance? Have you ever molded a story so that it would be more dramatic? As ‘head honcho’ have you ever taken a reporter’s copy and re-directed the focus?”

And the one bit in the Frontline program which really did reflect sourly on the Spokesman was not a fact or narration but a snip of video shot the night West lost his recall election, when Smith and others in the newsroom joked about possible headlines. (If you didn’t see the program, you can probably imagine what the “headlines” were.) Yes, it’s what happens in newsrooms, but in the somewhat tragic context it played like an outtake from Borat.

None of that really seemed to justify what looked like a deluge of negative comments on the Spokesman web site today. (Many were essentially just simplistic defenses of West; many came from outside the Spokesman‘s readership area.)

This whole case had its gray areas. We do think the Spokesman’s coverage and approach was justified, on balance. We can reach that conclusion, and sustain it in the wake of the Frontline piece, with some comfort because the Spokesman has been so open with its investigation.

Which is why we were a little taken aback by this comment on the main Spokesman blog:

An unintended consequence of the initiative is that every decision we make, no matter how routine or small, suddenly is exposed to national scrutiny occasionally generating jarring, off-point, crazy or even damaging responses.

We understand that the Transparent Newsroom isn’t about polishing our newsroom’s or national reputation. It’s about building credibility with our audience, here in Spokane and environs. But no one likes to be criticized in the personal way that Internet discourse encourages and some folks here are beginning to wonder.

If we open our doors to everyone and what we get in return is Tuesday ngiht’s Frontline, how can that possibly help.

We’d suggest that not only would the Tuesday program have reflected much more harshly on the Spokesman, but readers interested afterwards in sorting out the truth for themselves would not have had the many articles and raw materials to help in sifting the facts.

These comments – admitted not from residents of (though frequent visitors to) the Inland Empire, in suggestion that in these Internet days, there’s no longer anymore such thing as a local newspaper. As not only Spokane but the whole country found out once again, Tuesday night.

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